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Local News - Victoria

The people behind Melbourne’s struggling shopfronts


When businesses open, the last thing they spend money on is new signage, he says. He’s struggling on, but has painted just three signs for new businesses since the pandemic struck. Instead he’s taken to painting messages of frustration on his own front window: a long-nosed Pinocchio caricature of Daniel Andrews saying “I’m a real poli” along with “Let us Lift!”; “Let us play!”; “Let us swim” #mentalhealth. JobKeeper is the only thing keeping Mr Gardner afloat, and he dreads the time when it’s removed.

Up and down this strip, shop owners have abandoned their premises. It’s hard to trace the people behind these empty and graffitied windows to work out just what combination of COVID or other misfortune has made them quit. But the shopfronts they leave behind stick out like broken teeth.

One of Sydney Road's broken teeth.

One of Sydney Road’s broken teeth.Credit:Justin McManus

The story is replicated across the state. Retail job losses have already far eclipsed the height of the 1990s recession and are projected to hit almost 400,000 annually over the next five years, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study in August.

Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra says that after being shut down for more than 70 days, up to half the small and medium retail businesses in Melbourne may not survive.

“The retail industry has its fate in the hands of a state government that seems to be focused on beating this virus at all costs,” he says.

From the city to Chapel Street in the south, and Sydney Road in the north, vacancies are up. Seventeen shops are vacant on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 16 in Acland Street Village, and 27 in Bay Street, Port Melbourne. There is little hard data yet about how many businesses have shut for good.

From his office 500 metres down the road from Attic Signs, Walshe and Whitelock real estate director David Sowersby has watched the comings and goings of this retail strip for more than 45 years. He can remember it being this bad only once before. “Maybe in the late 80s and early 90s when that recession hit there might have been about as many vacant then.”

He looks to the end of JobKeeper in March.

“The problem we’ve got is no one really knows, after the JobKeeper type things, when that dries up, how many people are going to throw in the keys then?”

How many more shops will close when JobKeeper ends, asks John Sowersby.

How many more shops will close when JobKeeper ends, asks John Sowersby.Credit:Justin McManus

He estimates 10 per cent of businesses along Sydney Road are now vacant but, with so much uncertainty about the path to reopening, no one can say how many others will never return.

Jessica Tolsma’s bakery Jessicakes is one of the dozens of businesses that make up Sydney Road’s famed bridal precinct. Her industry was essentially shut down more than seven months ago when national cabinet announced radical restrictions on the number of people who could attend weddings, and people cancelled in droves.

Ms Tolsma’s three-person operation has survived on a combination of JobKeeper, a grant from the Victorian government and a deal struck with her landlord to partly waive and partly defer rent.

Jessica Tolsma from Jessicakes.

Jessica Tolsma from Jessicakes. Credit:Justin McManus

“We’re lucky to run a business in a country where the government is at least trying to help,” she said. But the longer the lockdown keeps retail and hospitality in a deep freeze, the “less the math works”.

JobKeeper payments have already been slashed by half and are due to end in March, rent and bills are accruing and it’s not clear when or which parts of the retail and hospitality sector will be allowed to return to some kind of normal trading.

“It’s not looking good at all, short term or long term. It’s not going to go back to normal. It’s going to be this new ‘COVID normal’ and who knows what that’s going to look like.”

“Even if you’ve got deferred rent, it’s just backing up behind you. How well will your business have to do to get on top of it after all this time?”

The wedding industry has been simultaneously smashed by restrictions against in-store retailing and the likelihood of ongoing restrictions against indoor gatherings.

Right now Victorian weddings can only have 10 participants, including the couple. That will increase to 50 in the “last step” of the state’s coronavirus recovery road map, on a date yet to be fixed.

“Lots of my brides won’t reschedule their weddings until they are allowed 100 people,” Ms Tolsma said.”Some … have already had to postpone twice and they’re not going to replan until this stuff has stopped happening. And who knows when that’s going to be?”

She had limited optimism about the federal budget measures that encourage hiring and tax write-offs on capital expenditure.

“Who has the money for that? Who has the business to hire more staff,” Ms Tolsma said. “I don’t need more staff, I need more customers.”

Jeweller Ellinor Mazza, saved by going online.

Jeweller Ellinor Mazza, saved by going online.Credit:Justin McManus

Jeweller Ellinor Mazza says her decision a few years ago to push into online retailing, rather than just rely on her Sydney Road street frontage, has been keeping her afloat, just.

“My business went down 40 to 50 per cent. The custom work and the repairs we just can’t do right now, but our online sales have gone up,” she said. “It’s never going to be as much as you need but it’s helped balance it out. I know other businesses that closed on the same day as us (in August) and they haven’t been able to trade at all.”

But even with the online sales, JobKeeper and other government assistance is what has kept Arbor’s four employees and its owner on the books.

“More and more damage is being done the longer this drags on. You get the feeling that sometime next year the bottom is going to fall out. That maybe things won’t bounce back. And then it’s like, where do I go from here?”

And the federal budget measures? “It’s great if you’re operating and actually have some certainty. But being Victorian, I can’t even plan for the next week let alone for the next 12 months.”

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Australian News

Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Seibold agrees to leave the struggling club



The Brisbane Broncos will part ways with head coach Anthony Seibold as soon as tomorrow, with the embattled boss agreeing to leave the NRL club.

The Broncos are expected to confirm Seibold’s departure once a severance package can be finalised.

Assistant coach Peter Gentle is expected to once again lead the club for Friday’s match against the Sydney Roosters.

He has been in charge for the past two games, with Seibold having been in isolation after leaving the club’s COVID-19 bubble to deal with a personal matter.

Seibold, 45, made a brief return to Red Hill on Tuesday morning after his isolation period ended.

Seibold’s reign at the Broncos lasted less than two seasons of a five-year contract.

The 2018 Dally M coach of the year was given the lengthy deal by the Broncos board after his maiden NRL campaign as South Sydney coach.

He led the Broncos to the finals in 2019 but a 58-0 hiding by Parramatta ended their campaign in turbulent fashion.

In 2020, Seibold found himself increasingly isolated in Brisbane as the club went on a run of 12 losses from its last 13 matches to slip to second from last on the ladder.

On Monday, the club’s biggest private shareholder Paul Murphy said the Broncos’ fall from grace under Seibold had been tough to endure.

“It becomes like a disease. If you get cancer, you’ve got to treat it, but they haven’t cut it out,” Murphy told reporters.

Off-field dramas have also plagued the once-mighty club which has come under fire for its recruitment and culture.

Club legend Kevin Walters and former North Queensland coach Paul Green are the frontrunners to replace Seibold.

AAP



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Local News - Victoria

Help at hand for those struggling with energy bills


“For some people $200 isn’t going to make them or break them … but it can really make a meaningful difference.” she said.

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“Research that often low income households are paying a higher percentage of income on energy bills, not because they’re being reckless with their energy, it’s because they’re on a bad deal .. and may have a barriers in the way of negotiating a better deal themselves.”

In a pilot program run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence’ last year, one pensioner said a $200 saving was going to mean she had an extra $16 a month and could have a rare lunch out with friends.

As part of the new measures, energy companies will now be required to offer help to small businesses experiencing financial stress.

The ESC will conduct tariff checks for residential customers receiving payment assistance, also assisting customers to obtain $1300 utility relief grants over the phone.

A consortium including the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Australian Energy Foundation and Uniting Vic will roll out a tailored Energy Assistance and Brokerage Program to help consumers get the best deal. Webinar, online conferencing, will be delivered by the Consumer Policy Research Centre.

Data from the Essential Services Commission shows that each week in July, around 9000 households called their energy company seeking assistance with managing their bills.

Data from the Essential Services Commission shows that each week in July, around 9000 households called their energy company seeking assistance with managing their bills.Credit:Fairfax Media

Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio said the financial counselling services would ensure people struggling with energy bills got the help they needed.

“We know that staying at home is putting more pressure on household bills,” she said. “If you’re doing it tough, we want you to know that there is one-on-one support available.”

Financial counselling is available in languages including Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi and Vietnamese.

For support call 1800 830 029. Live webinars to help households manage their energy costs can be accessed at energyinfohub.org.au

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David Fifita’s contract negotiations another distraction for struggling Brisbane Broncos


There have been more than a few players of late able to move like an outside back but hit with the force of a genuine forward.

But only a couple have known when to use each facet of their game.

Jason Taumalolo is one. Sonny Bill Williams was another.

The Brisbane Broncos have one in their midst and they’re seemingly within inches of losing him to a reported $1 million-a-season offer from the Gold Coast Titans.

Another player prepares to pass the ball to David Fifita at Brisbane Broncos training.
David Fifita is the best of a bright young batch of forwards at the Broncos.(AAP: Darren England)

After a week of speculation, including a reported complete 180 in the space of an hour, David Fifita’s future is still up in the air.

And for a team like the Broncos, who are already on the ground, this sort of thing is like kicking them while they’re down and then gluing them to the floor for future kickings.

The Broncos are in an odd situation because they built a team for a sport they no longer play and now need to look ahead to rebuild a team for the new normal.

When the six-again rules were changed, the Broncos were hit harder than any other team, as you can see by comparing their 0-6 record after the break to their 2-0 start.

That’s partly because they had invested heavily in big forwards that could win a wrestling match, with a dearth of improvisational wonders in the line-up.

Anthony Milford, who got a contract extension earlier this year, was supposed to be one of those but has seemingly lost his powers. Teenager Tesi Niu, who locked in a new deal this week, is apparently going to be one. But Fifita is one right now.

He is one of the only people in that team who can create something out of nothing. Just look at the 69-metre effort from round one as evidence of how special he is.

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And the thing is, while that was undeniably spectacular, it wasn’t even that much of a surprise because he’s done this sort of thing over and over and over again.

He’s 20 years old and he’s already a Maroon and an Indigenous All Star with a green and gold jersey an inevitability. And because of all that, it’s entirely possible that the Broncos simply cannot afford him.

The salary cap is a fickle thing and the Broncos have already extended players through next season.

While Darius Boyd has attracted a lot of attention for a lack of return on investment, he’s far from the team’s biggest problem with his retirement announcement a pressure release for the club.

But Jack Bird has a player option for 2021, which with his injury history and lack of form, he would be mad not to pick up or re-negotiate a longer-term deal. Corey Oates is also struggling for form and has player options coming up. And the ill-disciplined Tevita Pangai Jr is on big money through 2022.

A male Brisbane Broncos player lies on the ground clutching his leg after injuring his knee at an NRL training session.
The Broncos have a lot of money tied up in Jack Bird, who has played 17 games over three-and-a-half seasons.(AAP: Darren England)

Then there are long-term deals for Payne Haas, Matt Lodge, Joe Ofahengaue, Pat Carrigan (signed when hard-working forwards were all the rage) and Jamayne Isaako that, while they may be better value, are still soaking up cap space for the next few years.

So, what to do about Fifita; the youngest and best of the lot?

Talk of a possible one-year loan before returning to Brisbane seems fishy and unlikely. Fifita is good mates with a number of Titans, including another high-profile recruit, Melbourne’s Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, so banking on a 2022 comeback is a massive risk.

With money coming off the books at the end of this year (Boyd) and next year (Bird), by that point the team could be in the middle of a rebuild with money to spend, so it makes sense in a vacuum.

David Fifita looks to offload for the Queensland Maroons during a tackle by the NSW Blues' Cameron Murray in State of Origin I.
David Fifita last year became Queensland’s youngest debutant since Israel Folau.(AAP: Darren England)

Even so, the one-year plan feels like a bargaining chip at best and a way to get him out of Brisbane’s clutches at worst and the Broncos will surely be wary of any deal that they don’t have control over.

But coronavirus colours everything; even this debate.

We’ve seen leagues around the world flag cap reductions as a result of massive losses incurred from the pandemic. Why should the NRL — currently playing a reduced season in front of minimal crowds, with extra money being pumped into travel and biosecurity measures — be any different?

If the cap comes down even a little bit, an expensive long-term deal for Fifita could become an albatross.

But think about the players mentioned at the start of this piece. The Broncos have to think whether they would be willing to hitch their wagon to players of the Taumalolo or SBW pedigree, because Fifita can be that good.





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Melbourne Storm hand out 50-6 NRL thumping to struggling Warriors



The Melbourne Storm have wasted no time making themselves at home in Sydney, wiping the floor with the Warriors 50-6 at Kogarah Oval.

Two days after being forced to leave Victoria indefinitely due to a spike in coronavirus cases, the Storm ran in nine tries to snap a two-match losing run.

Suliasi Vunivalu netted his sixth career hat-trick, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Paul Momirovski nabbed two each, while Jahrome Hughes tallied four try assists.

The Warriors, playing in their first match since the shock sacking of coach Stephen Kearney, simply had no answers for a ruthless Storm attack.

The victory for the Storm may have come at a cost however, with star five-eighth Cameron Munster suffering a suspected knee injury.

Munster was caught awkwardly in a Karl Lawton tackle in the fourth minute on Friday and played out the rest of the half, but was interchanged at half-time.

Despite the one-sided scoreline, the early signs were promising for the Warriors, who themselves have spent almost two months away from home due to international travel restrictions.

Todd Payten’s side had 20 plays inside the opposition 20-metre zone during the opening 15 minutes but had nothing to show for their efforts.

Twice they were denied on opposite corners inside the opening seven minutes, before a 60-metre kick return from Josh Addo-Carr ended in Momirovski’s first try.

It was all one-way traffic thereafter, with Vunivalu, Papenhuyzen and Momirovski — with his second try in his first appearance for the club — all crossing in a seven-minute blitz.

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Warriors winger Patrick Herbert finally got his team on the scoresheet when he scored two minutes into the second half.

The Storm were unmoved, however, with Papenhuyzen completing his brace three minutes later, and Vunivalu adding two more in the space of three minutes.

Brandon Smith and Addo-Carr completed the rout for the Storm, who also had prop Christian Welch fail a concussion test early.

AAP



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Don’t play hardball, struggling retailers warn Scentre


About 90 per cent of stores in Westfield’s centres are now open. Visitation at the end of June 2020 is around 87 per cent of what it was the same time last year, she said.

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ASX-listed plus-sized fashion chain City Chic told investors this week it had closed 14 of its holdover stores in cases where it was “unable to reach an agreement” with its landlords on appropriate rents.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald understand all of the closed stores were leased with Scentre, which has a market capitalisation of $12 billion.

Big retailers such as Solomon Lew’s Premier Retail and Naomi Milgrom’s Sussan Group are facing down landlords, refusing to pay rent during the coronavirus restrictions and saying upon reopening they will only pay a percentage of gross store sales rather than their prior fixed rent agreements.

While other landlords have been largely amenable to these deals, Scentre has so far refused to agree to those terms, the chief executive claimed. “Because once they do, they’ll be inundated by [those requests],” they said.

About 20 per cent of the 272 retailers listed on Sydney’s Westfield Pitt Street mall are still “temporarily” closed, according to the Scentre-owned mall’s website.

One smaller restaurateur, who didn’t want to be identified, said they had stopped paying rent when their sales fell below $100 a day and were worried about how they would survive if they were forced to pay back the money owed.

“I’ve had great support from all my other landlords but I’m waiting to hear from Westfield,” they said. “It’s going to take us a year to get back to levels we’ve seen in the past. Margins are very thin. If we’re barely making rent, how are we going to be able to pay back the rent owed?”

“We’d be better off cutting our losses,” they said.

Another tenant was more positive. Arj Rupesinghe, chief executive of Mantle Group Hospitality which owns Duck & Rice and Babylon in the Pitt Street mall, said its businesses had reopened and were trading well.

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“We’ve been working with Westfield and they’ve been proactive through what’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he said.

Simon Crowe, the founder of the Grill’d restaurant chain, said the group closed 18 of its 140 restaurants around the country during the pandemic. A handful has since opened but 13 stores are still closed.

“In a general sense tying down any landlord to get an agreement is proving to be challenging,” Mr Crowe said. “That is as true for Scentre Group as all the other majors. We are trying to engage with them in good faith but it’s difficult to get a response from some of the majors in a matter that’s critical for our business.”

Scentre said it is working with retailers and their banks on commercial arrangements, “with a particular focus on those small to medium sized retailers who need the most support.”

“Every retailer and centre is different and our objective is to come to a mutually agreeable commercial arrangement. We said right from the start of the pandemic that it would take time to work through these conversations and we would do it with the empathy the community expects,” the spokeswoman said.

Paul Zahra, chief executive of the Australian Retailers Association, said that while some landlords had been accommodating of retailers’ needs, others had been providing little in the way of “genuine relief”, although he did not specifically mention which landlords.

“Landlords need to remember we are in a recession. Playing hardball with tenants during this unprecedented economic period is a lose/lose outcome,” he said. “It’s a false economy for landlords to try to extract rent from retailers that need their cash reserves to survive the COVID winter.”

The former David Jones chief executive said he had heard reports of landlords horse-trading with tenants, offering rent relief or freezes in exchange for longer-term leases.

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Melbourne AFL clubs should be cautious speculating on future of struggling rivals


Recently, the noted AFL historian Russell Holmesby released an oral history titled The Death of Fitzroy Football Club.

The name is somewhat controversial because, according to the officially authorised AFL version, Fitzroy did not die but, in 1996, merged harmoniously with the Brisbane Bears and lived happily ever after as the triple-premiership winning Brisbane Lions.

But even 24 years later the words of the Fitzroy players, coaches, administrators and, most significantly, fans who faced the choice of embracing the new club or walking away betray mixed emotions about the “merger”, if not the Brisbane Lions themselves.

Former Fitzroy player and coach Billy Stephen transferred his allegiance to the new entity, yet still considers the loss of the Roys as, “like a death in the family”.

The patron of the Fitzroy-Brisbane Historical Society Mel Corben decided to keep following the Lions from afar. But he says his son, “couldn’t come on board. He is still mourning Fitzroy”.

Such lingering feelings will resonate with those who supported South Melbourne when it became the Sydney Swans, even after the wonderful 2005 premiership dedicated to the old Bloods, and of fans of merged or banished clubs in other competitions such as the NRL’s Newtown and North Sydney.

You would think such heartfelt words would also evoke sympathy from the administrators of clubs such as the Bulldogs, Hawthorn and Melbourne who came close to merging, although it seems a near-death experience is more easily forgotten in the club’s front office than in the grandstand.

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The sentiments betrayed in The Death of Fitzroy Football Club seem timely because its release coincides with an outbreak of pandemic panic — a period in which the financial squeeze on the AFL has put a focus on the very existence of some supposedly struggling clubs.

However, counterintuitively, it is not the AFL Commission or executive that is shining the spotlight on the red ink-stained books of debt-ridden clubs; at least not publicly.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has created a survival mantra to reassure supporters of clubs such as St Kilda and North Melbourne, who have been cast as candidates for relocation or removal: “The AFL went into this [season shutdown] with 18 AFL teams and 14 AFLW teams, and we will come out of it with 18 AFL teams and 14 AFLW teams.”

Rather, reflecting a mid-pandemic tilt from “we’re all in this together” to a form of Footy Hunger Games, it is the leaders of some rival Melbourne clubs that are questioning the existence of their suburban counterparts.

Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett suggested in a letter to his members that struggling clubs should face a promotion/relegation system, although he did not provide details of how relegated clubs would survive in the semi-amateur VFL if they went down.

Nor did it seem to cross Kennett’s mind that, in the same year Fitzroy’s remains were carted north, Hawthorn legend Don Scott stood on a stage before thousands of fans and theatrically ripped a Velcro Hawk from a Melbourne jumper, symbolising what would be left of his proud club if a proposed merger with the Demons proceeded.

A man in a suit stands with his arms folded among Hawthorn players.
Jeff Kennett has suggested struggling AFL clubs could be relegated to the VFL.(AAP: Julian Smith)

Far more surprising was the insistence of Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon that struggling clubs show “greater accountability” and his publicly stated fears that the 18 clubs might not survive.

Yes, the same Peter Gordon who occupies a significant place in club history after tugging heartstrings and rattling cans in 1989 when the Bulldogs were set to be the junior partner in a merger with Fitzroy.

In the case of the once-struggling Hawthorn and Western Bulldogs, such forgetfulness demonstrates the mere chance that can decide a club’s fate. When the music stopped the Hawks and Bulldogs scrambled desperately and managed to grab a seat. Fitzroy was left standing.

Meanwhile, Offsiders panellist Caroline Wilson has reported further rumblings about the viability of North Melbourne and its suitability as a candidate to fill the vacancy in Tasmania; stories sourced from within the AFL and rival clubs.

History should not be a distant memory

Since South Melbourne’s relocation in 1982, truisms have been created to justify making decisions about someone else’s club or, more recently, to defend the loss-making ventures the AFL has created: “Victoria can’t support 10 teams”.

On the other hand: “The AFL can’t afford NOT to have teams on the Gold Coast and in Western Sydney.”

In such assessments, clubs made of flesh and blood are often cast as mere franchises. History is suddenly just distant memories not part of a team’s DNA. The emotions of supporters are disregarded as misty-eyed sentimentality in the face of gloomy financial projections. Dehumanising a club makes justifying its extermination much easier.

Accordingly, when Kennett, Gordon and the connections of other (currently) wealthy clubs fret about their reduced slice of a now smaller pie, you wonder how much self-reflection takes place. Do they remember it is only a quirk of historical timing that meant they had a relatively robust bottom line when a once-in-one hundred year pestilence descended?

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A footnote to the Death of Fitzroy Football Club is that the Brunswick Street Oval is now home to a vibrant community club in a now gentrified suburb that has taken the Fitzroy Football Club operating licence, name and colours.

The supporters of Old Fitzroy gather on Saturday afternoons to cheer for the local team, some wearing ancient hand-knitted scarves and beanies and badges honouring old Roys favourites.

It’s a great place to watch local footy and, for Fitzroy loyalists, there is a certain relief knowing the vultures of the AFL are no longer circling, but looking for other prey.

Offsiders will have highlights of the weekend’s AFL and NRL matches, and a detailed discussion on all the major sports issues from the week on ABC TV this Sunday at 10:00am.



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NRL clubs set to raid best young talent from struggling rugby – Daily Telegraph


  1. NRL clubs set to raid best young talent from struggling rugby  Daily Telegraph
  2. Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle spent $1m on failed broadcast negotiations  The Australian
  3. Rugby Australia is on a final warning – drastic measures must be taken to ensure survival  The Guardian
  4. Stop whingeing about the ‘good old days’ — rugby league has never been better  Fox Sports
  5. To save Aussie rugby we must scrap the states  The Roar
  6. View Full coverage on Google News



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America should be marking a baseball milestone. Instead it’s a nation struggling without its national pastime


My most memorable baseball game lasted 17 innings and almost ended a marriage.

It dragged on for so long, that Friday became Saturday.

It finally ended at 12.46am and we’d backed the losers.

Baseball thrives on statistics so it was easy to find the details of that game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies online even 17 years later.

Baltimore stadium empty during Orioles MLB match
Who wouldn’t love a sport built around a diamond?(Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)

I love baseball but there’s a time limit to that devotion and that night we’d passed it around 9pm.

But I was overruled by my then husband and a friend visiting from Australia who felt we’d committed so much of the day and night to the game we should stick it out to the end.

It was an era when Washington DC didn’t have its own team and getting to a game meant a milk-run regional train trip to Baltimore about 70 kilometres north.

Trouble was, at 1am, there were no trains home, and I was still too new to life in the US as an ABC correspondent to realise no one takes public transport to a baseball game in Baltimore.

We made it back to DC by bus around 3am, a journey so challenging (the driver got lost and we circled Capitol Hill three times), that it almost overshadowed the agony of the excruciating game.

Almost. Because little could overshadow baseball for me. Even when it goes for hours longer than it should.

A baseball and cup of beer with a baseball stadium in the background.
It’s not just the sport itself, it’s everything that goes along with it.(Flickr: slgckgc)

America needs baseball more than ever

I first discovered the joy of the beautiful game 20 years ago when we’d been holidaying in Boston and got scalped tickets to a Red Sox versus New York Yankees matchup on a perfect summer’s night.

The baseball fans reading this will know immediately why that was a pretty special game to have as your first memory.

Red Sox v Yankees. One of the all-time great rivalries.

New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres against the Boston Red Sox in 2019.
It’s always a treat watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox.(USA Today: Andy Marlin)

I was hooked from then on. Who wouldn’t love a sport built around a diamond?

The rousing national anthem, the first pitch, the crack of bat on ball, the seventh inning stretch (a chance to stand and sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame), the walking vendors screaming “peaaaaanuts” and expertly manoeuvring beers and hotdogs along seats — and just as efficiently pocketing the tips.

They’d be playing baseball right now if it wasn’t for coronavirus.

They’ve been debating how and if a 2020 season can begin. No one wants to contemplate an entire year without baseball.

It is the nation’s pastime and they need it now more than ever.

A boy rests his head on a railing as he waits during a rain delay before the start of American League MLB baseball game.
Americans are now forced to wait, not knowing when play will resume.(Reuters: Jessica Rinaldi)

Even after the attacks on September 11 it was only 10 days before a baseball game was being played in New York.

They were still digging through the rubble of Ground Zero when the Atlanta Braves and the hometown Mets walked onto the field.

Those who were there recall it being like a panacea for a grieving nation.

The sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball is the heartbeat of America, the posters will tell you.

And Americans are keen for baseball to step up to the plate and once again be the cure-all.

A milestone a century in the making

This year was also meant to mark a historical milestone — a century since the Negro National League was formed.

The first recorded game of the league was played on May 2, 1920, which made last Saturday the 100 year anniversary.

The story of how black and Hispanic players created their own league is more than a story of sport. It takes you to the heart of the civil rights movement in America.

The Pittsburgh Crawfords line up for a photo next to the team bus in 1935.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords were Negro National League champions in 1935.(AP)

Minorities had been playing baseball for decades with some historians suggesting they played as slaves well before the civil war.

They’d been effectively locked out of the major (white) league competition and by 1920 there was enough support for an organisation of their own and more than half a dozen negro teams were formed.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, told Scott Rank on the podcast History Unplugged that they took the approach, “If you won’t let me play with you, I’ll create a league of my own”.

Segregation brought challenges.

If there wasn’t black press in towns where the teams played there was no coverage. They were ignored.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t garnering a legion of fans.

The players in the negro leagues are credited with increasing the game’s international popularity.

In 1927 a team of all-stars from the negro leagues, calling themselves the Royal Giants, played an exhibition match in Tokyo, experiencing the kind of freedom travelling and playing they’d never had back home.

It would be another 20 years before one of them would be accepted into the major leagues, playing with white ballplayers.

That man was Jackie Robinson.

Former US baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.
Jackie Robinson was a true trailblazer in American baseball.(Supplied)

When he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 Robinson broke the colour barrier.

“It wasn’t just part of the civil rights movement, it was the start of the civil rights movement,” Kendrick told History Unplugged.

Kendrick says when people visit the museum that he now heads in Kansas, they’re expecting the sad story of segregation, of black players being refused entry to the major leagues before integration in 1947.

“But it’s also about overcoming adversity, a story of triumph in the era of segregation,” he said.

Within two years of Robinson joining the national league he was named the sport’s most valuable player.

It was not easy. He couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his teammates or eat at the same restaurants, but he’d walk out onto the field and carry the same expectations, if not more.

As Kendrick told Scott Rank on History Unplugged:

“He was going to carry 21 million black people on his back because had he failed, an entire race of people would have failed in the minds of many.”

‘Don’t feel sorry for me’

Difficult as it might have been, 1947 was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

Now that they had broken through the ranks of the major leagues, their own black and Hispanic teams started to fade away.

Many of their brilliant players should have made it into the major leagues but missed their time, finding themselves past their prime by the time they were allowed to join.

Buck O’Neil was one of them.

Former American baseball player Buck O'Neil in uniform.
Buck O’Neil’s story is emblematic of so many of his generation.(Supplied)

A player and manager, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W Bush.

When O’Neil was asked if he felt sorry he’d never played in the major leagues, he’d answer:

“No, don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the people who didn’t get to see me play.”

You see a baseball diamond when you walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum but chicken wire stops you walking onto it.

The wire is meant to be symbolic — a reminder of the huge numbers of players who never got a chance to walk onto their field of dreams.

Hopefully this year they’ll find a way to mark the significance of the role these players had not just to baseball but to the civil rights movement in the US.

And hopefully one day I’ll sit in a ballpark again, a hot dog in one hand, a cold beer in the other, eyes on the field as the afternoon rays fade.

LA Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
Oh, take me back to the ball game.(Getty Images: Sean M. Haffey)

The last game I got to was just a month before I wrapped up life in the US after nine years on and off reporting for the ABC.

It was 2015 and by then Washington DC had its own team — the Nationals — and a young star pitcher that I was keen to see in action one last time.

The skies were ominous but the atmosphere was joyous.

The rain came down though before the first ball was thrown and we all went home miserable.

Baseball can do that to you. A beautiful game that lifts you up, can test your patience and still leave you counting the days till you return.



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Local News - Victoria

Struggling international students to get state government lifeline


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About 250,000 international students came to Victoria to study last year, contributing $12.6 billion to state revenue, according to government figures.

The government fears the sector will suffer a $5.8 billion hit this financial year. The number of foreign students in Victoria has plummeted to an estimated 150,000.

A report by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute this month equated the scale of the interruption to the international student market to losing the car manufacturing industry every six months.

Victoria is the largest market in Australia for international students, with $3.06 billion flowing to the state’s universities in 2018, which accounted for 35 per cent of total foreign student revenue nationwide.

La Trobe University announced its own $12 million relief package for students on Tuesday, including $6.8 million for international students.

Deputy vice-chancellor Jessica Vanderlelie said the support package recognised the hardship students are facing, with many losing jobs or access to family support because of the virus response.

“This crisis has been acutely felt amongst our international students and I am pleased to say that $6.8 million has been allocated to directly support our international students,” Professor Vanderlelie said.

“The university, along with the rest of the sector, continues to lobby the federal, Victorian and local governments to step up and support our students, particularly international students.”

Deakin University has previously committed $20 million, the largest relief package of any tertiary institution in the country.

The Morrison government has resisted calls from within the university sector to provide financial relief to international students.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this month that overseas visa holders were “not held here compulsorily”, and if they were unable to support themselves “there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries”.

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